Dominik

Tracking down an African wild dog den

The winter months of June, July, and August mark the coldest period of the year in Northern Botswana. It is this cool period that African wild dogs choose for whelping, as pup rearing is energetically costly for a pack. Typically, the dominant female looks for a suitable den site, such as an abandoned aardvark hole, where she will give birth. As the mother is obliged to stay at the den to nurse and protect the pups, so the survival of both the mother and pups is fully dependent on the other pack members during this critical period. The rest of the pack all leaves the den site once or twice per day to go hunt, and upon returning, they regurgitate part of their freshly caught meal to feed both mother and pups.

During the denning period, the normal ranging radius of a pack is drastically reduced. Consequently, denning season is the optimal time of the year to locate the study area packs and for pack monitoring. This July we tried our luck to locate the den site of the missing ‘Mula’ pack. This pack was formed in February 2016 by the joining of a male dispersing group with a female group, each of which we had monitored with satellite collars as part of our ongoing research project on African wild dog dispersal. However, these satellite collars both had dropped off by now. As we are also interested in the settlement and reproductive success of recently formed packs, it was critical to catch up with this pack again.

Having no working radio telemetry collars on the pack we were left with no other option than to track down the pack on the ground the old-fashioned way. We already knew that the new Mula pack’s home range extended from Xakanaxa all the way east along the Khwai river to North Gate of Moremi Game Reserve. This meant they could theoretically have been denning anywhere within about 400 km2 and along a stretch of about 50 km. We decided to start our search mission in Xakanaxa where frequent sightings of 12 wild dogs had been reported on the sightings board at Moremi South Gate. The last time we saw ‘Mula’ pack, at the end of 2016, they were ten adults plus two pups. Therefore, these reports sounded promising.

With enough supplies to spend a couple of days away from our research camp, Ed, a Research Technician at Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT), and I set out for the 50 km drive to Xakanaxa. Upon arrival, we bumped into some safari guides who told us that they had regularly seen a pack of 10 wild dogs and one male was wearing one of our radio collars. Luckily, one of the guides had just seen the pack earlier that morning. Using this information, we started looking for fresh tracks on the main road and soon found some. The prints were following the road for roughly 3km but eventually they left the road and we lost their tracks. We decided to park our LandRover close to a crossroad to see if the pack would use the same road on their way out of the presumed den site for the evening hunt.

Our car parked next to the road in anticipation of the ‘Mula’ pack coming along on their way out of the presumed den site.

Being impatient, we left our lookout before sunset and looped around to the North the nearby Paradise Pools to search there. With no success, we drove back to the crossroad to find out that the pack had just come by, as indicated by the many fresh tracks on the road. We rushed following the tracks and caught up with the pack shortly after. They were spaced apart and due to the progressing darkness, we were not able to count more than eight individuals. As we were taking photos of them for identification, one of the dogs who was lagging behind suddenly turned back and sprinted down the road toward where they just came from. We followed him as we guessed he might have changed his mind and decided to return to the den. He ran down the road at full speed, coming by our stake out place at the crossroad and then continued heading further south. Then suddenly, he turned east into the thick mopane bushes. It was too dark for us to try to follow him through the thick vegetation, we took a GPS fix of where he turned off and went off to find a suitable spot to spend the night. Later that evening we confirmed by examining our photos, that these were indeed the remaining members of ‘Mula’ pack.

Our first encounter of ‘Mula’ pack as they were trotting along to road for an evening hunt.

Early the next morning, we positioned the vehicle again at the crossroad in hopes that the pack would come by again. Unfortunately, no dogs appeared and we had to conclude they must have chosen a different route. Just as we were about to leave, another game drive vehicle pulled up and told us they had just seen the dogs back on the airstrip again heading east – which meant towards where we saw them last night. In anticipation that the dogs would continue running in a straight line, we drove south on the main road and parked close to where the extension of the airstrip would intersect the road. Luckily, we were at the right spot as a group of six of them came out of the thicket and crossed the road. We immediately followed them into the bush. Despite many obstacles, we managed to stick with the dogs for roughly 300m. But then, suddenly, we lost them in a relatively open area. We got out of the car and started looking for fresh tracks. There were quite a few prints on a small game trail. By following them, we ended up in a sandy rift with spaced out apple-leaf trees. Unfortunately, the sand was very deep which made it hard to surely identify any of the many tracks as being from wild dogs.

A subgroup of ‘Mula’ pack crossing the road on their way back to the den site

For the next three days, we continued our search but never managed to close in further to the potential den site. We usually lost track of the dogs in deep sand. As we were running low on supplies, we eventually decided to head back to our research camp. But this didn’t mean that we were giving up. Too close were we in finding the den site to call our mission a failure.

One of the identification photos we took of the ‘Mula’ pack dogs after we bumped into them early one morning.

A few days later we drove back to Xakanaxa early in the morning accompanied by ‘Tico’ McNutt, founder and director of BPCT, who has decades of experience in tracking wild dogs. He seemed quite confident in finding their den based on our preliminary efforts in narrowing down the search area. As we approached Xakanaxa, we drove to the spot where Ed and I lost sight of ‘Mula’ pack previously. Tico got out of the car with Ed and me following. He first circled around the spot in a wide loop in search of any fresh tracks. Once we closed the loop he headed for the direction where he must have seen the most promising tracks. Shortly after, he showed us fresh dog tracks and pointed towards the direction they were leading. After about 1.5 km we approached an open sand ridge. Tico told us to stick close together as he was confident of the den being nearby. We followed the fresh tracks in deep sand, and as we were approaching a few apple-leaf trees we suddenly heard the alarm bark of a wild dog. This was undoubtedly the den site we had been looking for. We crouched down but weren’t able to get a visual of the dog as the trees were quite dense. We decided to take a GPS fix and return with the vehicle.

Impressed by the way Tico tracked down the den in no time, we started heading back. After a few steps, he stopped and showed us animal tracks in deep sand. What seemed like it could have been any track to Ed and me, was definitely the spoor of a wild dog according to Tico. He pointed out that he could detect wild dogs in deep sand based on their gait. Two feet are always placed close together with a bigger gap between the next set of pads whereas the step lengths of hyena prints are generally more regularly spaced. This was an important lesson for us and definitely made the difference as Ed and I were constantly losing the dogs in soft substrate during our previous search efforts.

Wild dog tracks (left) are not always as distinguishable from hyena tracks (right). As the substrate gets softer, details of the paw vanish quickly. We learned from ‘Tico’ that it comes down to look for gait patterns such as spacing between the footprints in deep sand.

On our drive to the newly-discovered den site we were not able to see more than half a dozen of the adult dogs nor to get a visual of any pups. But when Ed and I drove back to the den a few days later, we managed to identify all ten adults, the two yearlings, and watch twelve new-born pups play youthfully outside the den. It was well worth the effort:  No dogs had died since our last detailed encounter with the pack seven months ago and a promising number of pups was about to grow up.


Watch the ‘Mula’ pups as they emerge from the den:

 

Find out more about this project by visiting our research page:
African wild dog dispersal and demography

Where can the wild things roam? Combining ecological suitability and human acceptance for the Swiss wolf.

About one third of the Swiss landscape offers suitable wolf habitat. Nonetheless, there is only a small fraction thereof where the wolf is tolerated by local communities. Those regions – characterized by both favourable environmental conditions and a positive attitude towards the wolf – are identified as candidate regions for the successful short to medium-term wolf expansion, according to a study conducted by the population ecology research group at the University of Zurich

©RamiroMarquezPhotos / iStock

The wolf was eradicated in Switzerland and from large parts of continental Europe including France and Germany by the end of the 19th century. Following legal protection, the wolf population started naturally increasing and expanding, and in 1995 its presence was confirmed in Switzerland. Sightings have increased since. Despite 13’800 km2 of Switzerland are characterized by favourable conditions such as large forests with little human pressure and have thus been identified as suitable wolf habitat, wolf expansion in Switzerland has been substantially slower than in other parts of continental Europe. As the wolf is more and more subject to human-dominated landscapes, scientist at the University of Zurich developed a novel method that integrated both ecological and human components to identify regions with favourable environmental conditions and where the wolf was tolerated.

Mapping human acceptance of the wolf to identify suitable socio-ecological areas

socio-ecological suitability model
Combining human acceptance (a, c) and habitat suitability (b, d)
helps identifying socio-ecologically suitable wolf habitats in Switzerland (e).

About one third of 10,000 randomly selected residents in Switzerland participated in the survey. Combining the response from questionnaires with geographical information, Dominik Behr and his team created a nationwide map of human acceptance. Acceptance decreased with increasing altitude of residency and even more so where high numbers of sheep and goats were held. Acceptance increased with increasing distance from confirmed wolf presence and in densely populated areas. People who perceived the wolf as dangerous to humans and harmful to livestock and wildlife mainly opposed the wolf. Younger people, and people who believe that the wolf had a positive influence on the ecosystem had a more positive attitude towards the predator.

“When we overlapped our human acceptance map with a habitat suitability map for the wolf, we realized that only about 6% of Switzerland was characterized by both a positive attitude and favourable environment conditions. This was in contrast to results from the habitat suitability map, which returned one third of the Swiss landscape as being suitable for the wolf” said Dominik Behr. “As wildlife biologists, we are good at understanding the ecological factors determining the suitability of a habitat for a wildlife species. Due to ever-increasing overlap between human and wildlife, however, we are obliged to take into consideration how human acceptance modifies our ecological description of habitat suitability. This study demonstrates one effective way to do this.” stressed Arpat Ozgul, professor of population ecology at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, and co-author of the study.

A novel framework to manage wolves and people
The socio-ecological map created by Dominik Behr and his co-authors appears to accurately represent the wolf situation in Switzerland of the past years, including identifications of areas of high, moderate or limited conflict. “By capturing areas characterized by both favourable environmental conditions and a positive acceptance towards the wolf, our approach is a valuable tool to identify overall socio-ecological suitable areas for the wolf. Under given conditions, those regions are good candidates for the successful short to medium-term expansion of the wolf. Additionally, this approach allows to identify key regions where proactive and targeted socio-ecological management plans and a constructive dialog among different stakeholders are needed” said Dr. Gabriele Cozzi, who coordinated the study.

Special thanks go to the 3142 people that returned the completed questionnaire – this study would not have been possible without their contribution.

Behr DM, Ozgul A, Cozzi G (2017) Combining human attitude and habitat suitability: a unified socio-ecological suitability model for the wolf in Switzerland. Journal of Applied Ecology

Triple congratulations to Dominik

Series of congratulations to Dominik on three wonderful achievements!

First and foremost, he managed to persuade a wonderful lady, Regula, to tie the knot. We wish them a long and happy life together. May they grow old on one pillow!

regula&dominik

Secondly, he successfully attracted third-party funding to support his PhD study on wild dog dispersal in Botswana, and started his PhD work. He is currently out and about, gps-collaring wild dogs together with Gabriele.

Last but not the least, he just received the Albert Heim Foundation’s 2016 Science Award, with his MSc work on the Swiss wolves. This award is given annually to outstanding work by young researchers in Swiss universities. The broad spectrum of research includes various disciplines around canines, including interdisciplinary issues such as the human-wolf relationships, which Dominik has nicely studies during his MSc. He sure will be a promising contender again with his new canine sp. in the upcoming years.

African wild dog dispersal and demography

Past and present African wild dog distribution
Past and present African wild dog distribution. The wide ranging African wild dog has been identified as flagship species for the Kavango Zambesi Transfrontier Conservation Area that spanning five countries including Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe plays at home to the largest contiguous population of this endangered carnivore.

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is Africa’s most endangered large carnivore and is listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. The species was formerly distributed throughout sub-Sahara Africa but today it has disappeared from most of its former range. Less than 6’000 free-ranging individuals survive in the wild, and the species has been given very high conservation priority. One major threat to the survival of the species is the loss and fragmentation of suitable habitats due to expanding human population. As a result, wild dogs are forced to live in isolated small subpopulations, which are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Dispersal of individuals is a fundamental process governing the dynamics of socially and spatially structured populations. Through emigration and immigration, dispersing individuals lead to the formation of new groups, can rescue small subpopulations, and recolonize unoccupied areas. There is, however, a mismatch between our understanding of the complexity of dispersal and our representation of dispersal in population dynamic models. This is particularly the case for species characterized by long-distance dispersal, such as the African wild dog, as the fate of dispersers is often unknown and consequently neglected.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana represents one of the last strongholds for this endangered carnivore in southern Africa and, through dispersing individuals, the resident population likely acts as a source population for the natural re-colonization of the surrounding regions. Under these circumstances, understanding how and where wild dogs disperse, and assessing connectivity between subpopulations is fundamental for the management and conservation of the species across large wildlife landscapes such as the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA/TFCA), for which wild dogs have been identified as a flagship species. Recent miniaturization of tracking devices finally allows us to follow dispersers in their whereabouts and collect information on dispersal movement patterns (e.g. travelled distance) and dispersal success (e.g. survival rate during dispersal), and to evaluate connectivity across the landscapes of KAZA/TFCA.

The aim of this project is to improve the long-term viability and connectivity of African wild dog subpopulations nationally and across the KAZA/TFCA landscapes by providing new empirical evidence and novel information on dispersal and its demographic consequences. To this end, we bring together novel information on dispersing individuals and 25 years of individual-based life-history data from resident groups to provide an explicit investigation of dispersal in African wild dogs. We deploy GPS/Satellite radio collars on sub-adult African wild dogs that disperse from their natal group, to collect information on dispersal patterns, habitat use and selection during dispersal, survival, settlement success in a new territory, and reproductive success of newly formed packs. This information on dispersing individuals will be merged with existing long-term demographic data on resident groups to inform a spatially explicit demographic model at an unprecedented level of detail. Our project will allow assessing population viability and extinction risks under changing environmental and anthropogenic scenarios and thus help identifying key conservation actions. Results from this project will be used to inform effective national and international management plans.

This project complies with one of the main objectives identified in the Regional conservation strategy for the cheetah and wild dog in southern Africa (IUCN/SSC 2009) in the “Strategic plan for African wild dogs in KAZA 2014 – 2018” (KAZA TFCA Secretariat, 2014) that aim to improve awareness and knowledge by “acquiring a better understanding of dispersal, habitat use and connectivity for wild dogs”.

 

A dispersing wild dog watches the sun setting over a lagoon in the Okavango Delta, northern Botswana (Photo: Dominik Behr)
A dispersing wild dog watches the sun setting over a lagoon in the Okavango Delta, northern Botswana (Photo: Dominik Behr)

By placing dispersal into a wider ecological and demographic context, this project will increase our fundamental biological understanding of dispersal and help improve our ability to predict and manage the responses of endangered carnivores to environmental and anthropogenic perturbations. This project will provide an important scientific insight for evidence-based conservation of the African wild dog, but also for other wide-ranging carnivores such as the cheetah and the lion.

This project has been developed in collaboration and coordination with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, the longest running conservation research study on African wild dogs. Financial support has been granted by Zurich University, Idea Wild, Jacot Foundation, Parrotia Foundation, Temperatio Foundation, and Wilderness Wildlife Trust.

 

In collaboration with:

Popecol group started to form postwomen and postmen

Do Swiss people support or oppose wild living wolves in Switzerland? Do wolves encounter a positive “human environment” in areas with suitable habitat conditions? To answer these questions, Gabriele and I are conducting a mail survey among a random sample of the Swiss population. In order to master the logistics of mailing out 10’000 questionnaires, the Popecol group jumped in with many supporting hands.

Questionnaire about people's attitude towards the wolf in Switzerland
Questionnaire about people’s attitude towards the wolf in Switzerland

A questionnaire with sections on attitude, perception and knowledge of the wolf, experience with the wolf and personal information about the respondent was developed and translated into German, French and Italian. Before going big and mailing out 10’000 questionnaires, a pre-study with 200 randomly chosen people was conducted. So far the pre-study yielded a return rate of almost 30%, which is higher than expected. With this first promising outcome in mind the time was ripe for undertaking the logistics of printing, folding and packing 10’000 questionnaires.

With great support of the Popecol group, the first packing round successfully went off without a hitch. In groups of two helpers, the questionnaires were packed in envelopes together with a cover letter and a return envelope. So far, the first 4’000 questionnaires are on the way to be delivered to the randomly chosen respondents all over Switzerland. The last packing round is scheduled and the remaining questionnaires are planned to be sent out soon.

Envelope packing procedure performed by the Population Ecology group
Envelope packing procedure performed by the Population Ecology group

Thanks again for the great support and let’s keep our fingers crossed for a high return rate!

Dominik Behr | PhD Student

My research interests are in the field of population ecology, movement ecology, animal conservation and wildlife management.

My current research focuses on dispersal and its demographic consequences in the African wild dog. I aim to explore the patterns and mechanisms of dispersal as well as the resulting population-dynamic implications by acquiring movement data and by using long-term demographic data. Ultimately, the goal is to provide scientific evidence for the implementation of effective conservation strategies for this endangered large carnivore. For more information, please visit our research page.

My previous work has investigated whether there is spatial consensus between suitable wolf habitats and public acceptance of the wolf in Switzerland.

Besides my research, you will most probably find me outdoors doing sports and taking pictures of wildlife or at the zoo in Zurich, where I work part-time as a guide. I also like traveling, reading, cooking and having a good beer with friends.

 

CV

  • 2016-present, PhD student at Population Ecology Research Group, University of Zurich
  • 2016, Research assistant at Population Ecology Research Group, University of Zurich
  • 2014-2015, MSc in Environmental Sciences, University of Zurich
  • 2014, Nature Field Guide qualification, Limpopo Field Guiding Academy, South Africa
  • 2010-2013, Industrial Engineer, ABB Ltd, Switzerland & China
  • 2006-2009, MSc in Management, Technology and Economics, ETH Zurich
  • 2003-2006, BSc in Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich

 

Publications

  • Behr DM, Ozgul A, Cozzi G (2017) Combining human acceptance and habitat suitability in a unified socio-ecological suitability model: a case study for the wolf in Switzerland. Journal of Applied Ecology